Wednesday, June 24, 2009

We want information! (You won't get it.)

Image via Wikipedia

Thanks to the kindness of The Friendly Stranger I have been watching the seventeen episode 1968 British series The Prisoner on DVD.

I first encountered the show (though I didn't know it at the time) in a random episode of The Simpsons many years ago. I can't recall all of the details of the show, but the imagery that stuck in my mind were these:

a. technicolor costumes
b. a very odd community of people that acted quite bizarrely
c. people only being referred to by a designated number--no names
d. constant gassings and unconsciousness

As it turns out, now that I've watched the show, three out of four of the elements of the Simpsons episode were spot on. Only the constant gassings were exagerated. (I'll admit that I was a bit disappointed by this as I got into the series. Homer was being knocked out by gas every five minutes in an increasingly odd way. First it was through a doorknob, then from a telephone receiver, then out of a bird in a tree, then out of Marge's mouth. It was absurd. The show only did it in the title sequence.)

I remember being intrigued by the plot of The Simpsons episode, but didn't investigate and then promptly forgot. But when the original show's creator, main actor Patrick McGoohan died earlier this year, the obituaries describing the show jogged my memory and I had some context. Learning that this show's bizarre mystery plot has also inspired the creators of LOST sealed the deal for me. I had to watch this show.


The show's plot focused on McGoohan's character. The title sequence sketches his backstory--a British government agent (a spy?) abruptly resigns his job and wants to leave it all behind. He is gassed (through the keyhole!) and wakes up in the mysterious Village. He doesn't know where the Village is, who runs the "prison," or why he has been taken. Eventually you learn that the abductors want "information," i.e. they want to know why McGoohan's character (known as No. 6 in the Village) resigned and what secrets he holds.

In the context of the time period that the show was created, McGoohan is warning the audience about Cold War fears. Who runs the Village? The enemy? Or (even worse) Our Side? And if it is Our Side, they are willing to submit their prisoners to brainwashing, double crosses, subterfuge, and anything else they can think of to get the information that keeps the nation safe and gives them a leg up on their Cold War opponents. Personal liberty is of little importance in the face of overwhelming and unchecked government power.

Throw in a bizarre cast of multi-colored characters in Sixties style costumes, a nemesis that change weekly (No. 2), the mystery of "Who is No. 1?," and--at least in the early episodes, the frequent appearance of the mysterious security device--often referred to as Rover these days on the Internets--that seemed sentient even though it was nothing more than a big balloon shaped thing that bounced around, scared the shit out of out-of-line prisoners, and suffocated those that had it coming to them . . . well, you can see the appeal, can't you?

I have learned that the show was quite the phenomenon in Britain during its seventeen episode run. The stylized show with its mind games, double-crosses, non-linear story lines, and last minute plot twists were water cooler talk similar to the stuff I've gone through the last many years with LOST.

Also of interest is the fact that they build-up to the finale was very tense and the resultant finale (which I won't spoil . . . even if I could begin to make sense of it) divided the viewing public into two outraged camps. One side was terribly confused by the unresolved questions and difficult to understand outcome. The other half was angry that McGoohan's politics were too critical of the status quo and dangerous.

I think it an interesting--if dated and culturally specific--test case for what LOST fans will be going through during LOST's final season hysterics in 2010. If the final episodes don't satisfy people (and I can assure you, for many people, there is NO WAY to achieve satisfaction) you'll hear the anguish. But I'd rather they make an honest effort to tell the story in a straightforward way.

I think where McGoohan went wrong is that he let his Art get in the way of his Story. The final two hours were confusing and obtuse and (probably intentionally) difficult to interpret. I seen enough foreign films over the years to accept the fact that many stories aren't tied up in a neat bow at the end. But I think a way to an answer should be found in there somewhere.


If you want to watch the show, click on this link to watch online episodes courtesy of AMC Network.

If this intrigues you, remember that a few days ago I noted that AMC is working on a new Prisoner series starring Jim Caviezal and Ian McKellan.

The parody episode of The Simpsons that I mentioned above was entitled "The Computer Who Wore Menace Shoes." Naturally, Fox won't allow video clips played on the Internet, but here's a detailed Wikipedia article about it.


David said...

I forgot to work this t-shirt design into the discussion of the show. Think of this phrase as a 1968 version of LOST's "Namaste" and you'll get the idea.

Anonymous said...

Another Prisoner reference that appears on the Simpsons is the "Rover", although in the show it is referred to as an "Anti-Escape Orb".

The final episode WAS strange, no? When I watched it for the first time, all I could think about to myself was that if I was alive and watching it at the point of introduction, there would be something in my cultural memory that would make me get it. But I didn't; I walked away confused and a bit disappointed.

I found it to be considerably less frustrating than some other final episodes, though--The Sopranos, for instance, still makes me pretty angry, even 2 years later. For an example of a show that got it correct, though--refer to Six Feet Under.